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Question, That the proposed words be there added , put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


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Electoral System

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I inform hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Please will hon. Members who are not staying for the debate leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

7.31 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I beg to move,

The debate has been prompted by the continuing concern about the risk of fraud in our electoral system and particularly by the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the visit, starting today, of two rapporteurs from the Council of Europe, who are examining the risk of electoral fraud in the United Kingdom and an initial monitoring process for elections. Who would ever have thought that it would come to this? [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland says that is typical of Europe, but I thought that his party was in favour of Europe, certainly the Council of Europe.

All electors are entitled to a free, fair and secure vote, and the United Kingdom has prided itself since the Victorian period on having systems in place to provide it. In fact, the author of the modern polling station, H. S. Chapman, even has a society named after him, manned by electoral lawyers and administrators. Before Labour was elected, Labour Members took that seriously. They talked about restoring trust in Government and the importance of the political process. However, since coming to office, Labour has tinkered with the electoral system and repeatedly ignored cross-party warnings, and has thereby damaged the integrity of our electoral system.

The Government wanted to increase the ease and convenience of voting. That is fair enough—it is a perfectly laudable aim—but they have not provided the parallel measures needed to minimise the risk of fraud. That is where they have failed. There is a case for modernising the electoral system to reflect new realities in the way people live their lives—friends sharing homes, more people living alone and the changed standing of women in our society—but none of that has been done. The Government’s modernisation programme has been ill thought through and has resulted in a collapse of public confidence. Even though the Government introduced a Bill last Session, now the Electoral Administration Act 2006, they have consistently ducked the main recommendation of the cross-party alliance calling for change: the introduction of individual voter registration.

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The extent to which public opinion has been touched by the Government’s antics is shown by the MORI poll that found that 54 per cent. of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit fraud. The introduction of postal voting on demand without adequate security measures to combat the increased risk of fraud was the major turning point.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman refers, rightly, to the turning point being in 2000, when postal votes on demand first became part of the British system, but is not it correct that his own party—indeed, all parties—welcomed and supported the introduction of postal voting on demand as a worthwhile step to broaden participation in the electoral process?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman may have missed the point that I made just a moment ago, which is that the aim of increasing ease of access to voting is laudable and we would all agree with it, but it is wrong if the Government do not take the parallel measures that are necessary to secure the protection of the system. That is what we have been saying—not just the Conservatives; I include the Liberal Democrats. We have made that point from the outset.

Ministers were warned. After the 2003 local election all-postal voting pilots, SOLACE—the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers—wrote to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), saying that

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I know that many Members want to speak, but I invite him to consider the fact that we, as political parties, have a responsibility to ensure that voters are not misled. I invite him to consider what he would do if he discovered that after the electoral returning officer had secured the signatures of postal voters as required, in the proper way, a prospective candidate for the local elections wrote to all postal voters, informing them that all current postal votes had been cancelled and that they should apply to him if they did not get a further application to register. If I told him that it was a Liberal Democrat prospective candidate for the council, would he be surprised by the double standards that the Liberal Democrats apply?

Hon. Members: No.

Mr. Heald: The right hon. Lady has obviously struck a chord in the House. I noticed many hon. Members saying that they would not be at all surprised. Perhaps I would not be either. If I am really fair about this for a moment— [Interruption.] I think I should be. The point that we are making is that if there are loopholes in the system and glaring omissions in security, there will always be people who are so desperate to be elected to whatever post that they will defraud the system. That is why we need the protections that we are talking about.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): In Bradford, there have unfortunately been quite a number of complaints about electoral fraud, and Bradford council is one
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of the councils that are keen to have individual registration, because it knows how big a difference that would make. In west Yorkshire the police, who should be spending a lot of time investigating proper crimes that affect people in our communities, are having to spend an awful lot of time investigating either genuine or malicious complaints of electoral fraud because of the lax system. Does my hon. Friend agree that the police need to spend time on other crimes, rather than wasting time on electoral fraud?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes an important point. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life examined the issue, it found more than 300 cases of electoral malpractice and it recommended—I shall come to this later in my remarks—that the Government should be doing the research to find out the current level of fraud. I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), to commit herself, when she replies, to making the results of such research available, because it is very important.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald: Not for a moment.

In June 2004, the Government imposed all-postal voting in the face of cross-party and Electoral Commission opposition. There was chaos. One result was even annulled by an election court in the responsible Cabinet Minister’s backyard of Hull. The Labour party should not be too smug about the question of fraud, because the Labour campaign manual advised activists to build their own ballot boxes and go around collecting postal votes. It said:

People were being misled into thinking that Labour party workers were something to do with the electoral system.

Meanwhile, in Parliament, concern was rising. I took the issue up with the then Leader of the House on several occasions, and a former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, identified just how inaccurate the electoral registers had become. In an important debate in Westminster Hall, she made the point that

She had noticed ineligible people appearing on the register in her constituency, started to make inquiries and discovered that no proper checks were being made. She was shocked that, through parliamentary questions, she was able to uncover that when a “cleaning exercise” took place and the names of the people on the register were checked to see whether they lived at the addresses that were given, literally thousands of names had to be taken off the register. She gave the worst examples. Some 15,486 individuals, or 18.6 per cent. of the register, were removed in Brentford and Isleworth and 11,210, or 14.5 per cent., were removed in Portsmouth, South. She gave other examples that showed that there was a major problem. One example that she gave was that of a journalist who had been able to get himself registered in 31 constituencies using the name “Gus Troovbev”, which is actually an anagram of “bogus voter”.

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In April 2005, an election court found Labour councillors in Birmingham guilty and the commissioner Richard Mawrey described fraud that

In the general election of 2005, for the first time, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe sent election observers from Ukraine and Serbia to police our elections. In their report, they raised concerns about security.

On 22 June 2005, I led a debate on the integrity of the process, pointing out the need for individual voter registration and security measures such as those introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002. Despite the support of most parties in the House for individual voter registration, the Government have persistently refused to introduce such a system. They prefer to leave in place the system in which the head of the household fills in the form for all those in the home. Not only is this very old fashioned, looking back to the days before the equality of women was recognised, but it fails to recognise the way in which people now live their lives. In homes in multiple occupation, one wonders how many forms are simply thrown away by one housemate, unwittingly depriving the others of their voter registration. The right to vote is an individual right and it should be individually registered and exercised.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has pursued this matter assiduously and has rightly said that it is foolish to make party political points— [ Interruption. ] No: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Unionist and British National party members have been convicted of electoral fraud in this decade. I therefore hope that we will not make silly and pointless allegations.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way to remedy a Government failure to implement what the Electoral Commission kept on telling us was needed is to have a procedure whereby the commission’s recommendations are automatically laid—perhaps by a member of the Speaker’s Committee—before Parliament so that they do not depend on the partisan view of the Government of the day?

Mr. Heald: The recommendation that Sir Alistair Graham has made is that we should actually get together and talk about how we introduce individual voter registration. I hope that the Minister will invite us to a meeting so that we can do exactly that.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald: No, I think the hon. Gentleman has had a good go.

The Electoral Commission said in May 2005 that household registration should be replaced with a system of individual voter registration, and repeated that point again during the course of the debates on the Electoral Administration Bill. In its briefing for this debate, it says that

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It is not the only voice. There is cross-party support, and in its recent report on the Electoral Commission, the Graham committee looked at this issue. It pointed to the success of individual voter registration in Northern Ireland, which has the most accurate and comprehensive register in the UK. [ Interruption. ] The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East, scoffs, but the Government themselves have described individual registration as

Both the current electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland, Douglas Bain, and his predecessor, Denis Stanley, have told me that they are confident that those who are on the register are those entitled to vote. Indeed, in previous debates hon. Members from Northern Ireland have confirmed that. The Graham committee recommends implementation of individual voter registration and that the political parties should start discussions now. It is now over to the Minister; let us get on and do this. It is even said now that the Leader of the House expressed sympathy with that view in a meeting with Lobby journalists last week.

The Graham committee compiled evidence of 342 cases of electoral malpractice and criticised the lack of central monitoring. It pointed to three main risks: fraudulent registration, impersonation at the polling station and misuse of postal votes. It highlighted the “perennial difficulty” of detecting fraud and called for the research to which I have referred.

On impersonation at the polling station, the Minister’s answer in the Electoral Administration Act was that someone should sign for their ballot paper when they attend the polling station. Unfortunately, the measure was so badly drafted in the Act that she is not able to implement it, so will she explain how she now intends to proceed? The Committee on Standards in Public Life described the measure as “not remotely strong”, but now we have nothing at all.

On postal voting, in addition to individual voter registration, the committee suggests “an objective identifier”. Has the Minister had any further thoughts on this, or is she saying that we have to wait for the identity cards database, as some of the consultation documents suggest? We believe that the national insurance number, as in Northern Ireland, is best suited to the purpose, without any of the lengths of intrusion or expense of ID cards.

Important elections take place in May. No proper checks are being made on the accuracy of the register. It is still possible for the so-called head of household to fill in names on the register and there is no simple way of checking that they even exist. The measures to protect voting at the polling station with signatures for ballot papers cannot be implemented. We are told by the Graham committee that only 20 per cent. of postal votes are proposed to be checked for the correct signature and date of birth, and the extra requirements of a signature and date of birth cannot be checked electronically. We cannot be satisfied that these votes will be secure.

The Government are going even further and, despite all the reservations of experts in the field who say that it is dangerous, they are moving ahead with their idea
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of e-voting. The Foundation for Information Policy Research said that the only way to allow electronic voting is

However, that is what the Minister thinks we should have in this country; that is what she is doing with her pilots.

The Council of Europe, which has sent its rapporteurs here, has noted in a recent resolution

The rapporteurs are investigating, and I understand that the Minister and I are to meet them tomorrow, although separately. Will she finally give us the good news that the Government will concede individual voter registration? Is she really not prepared to accept the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and start a dialogue? The committee has already rubbished half the job that the Government gave to the Electoral Commission, but on the other half, the central point that the commission, which the Government set up, is making is that the missing piece in the jigsaw is individual voter registration in a country where the individual has the right to vote. Is she really happy for this country to continue to be embarrassed and shamed at home and abroad by not having the sort of free, fair and secure electoral system that is our birthright in Britain, which has the mother of all Parliaments?

7.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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